Depending on which neighborhood I’m in,” says Aasif Mandvi, looking around the packed Sunday-brunch crowd at the venerable and fragrant Jackson Diner in Queens, “I’m more likely to be recognized for something different.” In the Village or Chelsea, it’d be for The Daily Show, where he plays “Middle East Correspondent,” “Foreign-Looking Correspondent,” and sometimes even “Brown Correspondent” (and for whom he worked the crowd at the rally in D.C.). On the Upper West Side (where he lives), it’s often for a mainstream romantic comedy like The Proposal, in which his character was fired by Sandra Bullock. As for here, in Jackson Heights? “They’re more likely to have seen me in some Indian-American film,” like 2001’s American Chai. “But I’ve always had a foot in different worlds. That’s the way my career’s always been.”
He was born in Mumbai, and his Indian Muslim family moved when he was a year old to Bradford, in the north of England, where his father owned a newspaper shop. “It had a heavy Indian and Pakistani population, but I went to a very white boarding school. I always thought of myself as this white, middle-class kid.” When he was 16, the family moved to Tampa. His first job after graduating from the University of South Florida was in an improv group called Streetmosphere at Disney-MGM Studios.
In 1991, Mandvi moved to New York, and discovered Jackson Heights. “Suddenly it was like coming home to Bradford. I’d come here and eat Indian food and just hang out. And it was a powerful experience, because I’d spent much of my life rejecting that part of myself.” He embraced his ethnic identity in his work, too. In his 1998 one-man Off Broadway play Sakina’s Restaurant, he portrayed a variety of characters wrestling with their identities. He’s also played the doctor who diagnoses Robert De Niro in Analyze This; Peter Parker’s pizza-store boss in Spider-Man 2; the title character in Merchant Ivory’s The Mystic Masseur; a Taliban mullah in Homebody/Kabul.
Mandvi was initially hesitant about the The Daily Show’s casting call in 2006. “I was worried they’d have me flying around on a magic carpet or something,” he says. But he got the part, for a segment skewering Condoleezza Rice’s comments about the violence in Iraq and Lebanon representing “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” (“It’s not every day that an entire region is given this kind of chance,” he said drolly.)
Not all of Mandvi’s segments have been related to the Middle East (He once crashed a health-insurance conference to commiserate with executives who claimed to be suffering under the weight of runaway profits.) But many are. In August, he headed to Tennessee to interview Laurie Cardoza-Moore, an activist protesting the building of a local Islamic community center. When Cardoza-Moore claimed that there were 35 terrorist training camps across the U.S., Mandvi breathlessly pretended to call a friend: “Ahmed … She knows!” “It’s probably the only time I’ve ever gotten in an off-camera argument with a subject,” he says. “To her credit, she said, ‘Look, I don’t mean to offend you, I know you’re Muslim.’ And all I could say was, ‘I appreciate that, and I know you think you have all these facts and figures, but you’re just wrong.’ ”
He wrote the film Today’s Special, which is out this month, with Jonathan Bines, a former Daily Show writer. In it, Mandvi plays a Manhattan chef named Samir, who has to take over his family’s restaurant in Queens after his father becomes ill. “The father and the mother basically are my parents,” he says, noting that, like his dad, “in the film, [Samir’s] father really wanted to be a doctor. He got top grades, but his father couldn’t afford medical school.”
One of the film’s most touching moments occurs when Samir and his father pray together. “I wanted to show just two ordinary Muslims praying the namaz, and not have it be something menacing or alien, and not have all this music or whatever. It comes from a place of love and bonding, which is what it was in my family growing up.” It certainly doesn’t make him a fundamentalist. “I’m Muslim the way many of my Jewish friends are Jewish: I avoid pork, and I take the big holidays off.”